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Performing Identities - Who is M

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  • Rough Draft Workshop for final papers NEXT THURSDAY!! Remember, final papers should be REVISIONS of your close reading papers with scholarship (so everyone should have a solid draft to work on).  



 Performing Identities: Who is M?


David Hwang's drama M. Butterfly responds to a series of narratives, written by Europeans and Anglo-Americans. It both protests (and sensualizes) imperialism in Asia.   




Evolution of Madame Butterfly: 

Synopsis of Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini 

Time: 1904.
Place: Nagasaki, Japan.

Act 1

In 1904, a U.S. Naval officer named Pinkerton rents a house on a hill in Nagasaki, Japan, for himself and his soon-to-be wife, "Butterfly". Her real name is Ciocio-san, (cio-cio, pronounced "chocho"[needs IPA]: the Japanese word for "butterfly" is chō (蝶?) orchōchō/chōcho (蝶々 or 蝶蝶?)). She is a 15-year-old Japanese girl whom he is marrying for convenience, since he intends to leave her once he finds a proper American wife, and since Japanese divorce laws are very lax. The wedding is to take place at the house. Butterfly had been so excited to marry an American that she had earlier secretly converted to Christianity. After the wedding ceremony, her uninvited uncle, a bonze, who has found out about her conversion, comes to the house, curses her and orders all the guests to leave, which they do while renouncing her. Pinkerton and Butterfly sing a love duet and prepare to spend their first night together.

Act 2

Three years later, Butterfly is still waiting for Pinkerton to return, as he had left shortly after their wedding. Her maid Suzuki keeps trying to convince her that he is not coming back, but Butterfly will not listen to her. Goro, the marriage broker who arranged her marriage, keeps trying to marry her off again, but she won't listen to him either. The American Consul, Sharpless, comes to the house with a letter which he has received from Pinkerton which asks him to break some news to Butterfly: that Pinkerton is coming back to Japan, but Sharpless cannot bring himself to finish it because Butterfly becomes very excited to hear that Pinkerton is coming back. Sharpless asks Butterfly what she would do if Pinkerton were not to return. She then reveals that she gave birth to Pinkerton's son after he had left and asks Sharpless to tell him.

From the hill house, Butterfly sees Pinkerton's ship arriving in the harbour. She and Suzuki prepare for his arrival, and then they wait. Suzuki and the child fall asleep, but Butterfly stays up all night waiting for him to arrive.

Act 3

Suzuki wakes up in the morning and Butterfly finally falls asleep. Sharpless and Pinkerton arrive at the house, along with Pinkerton's new American wife, Kate. They have come because Kate has agreed to raise the child. But, as Pinkerton sees how Butterfly has decorated the house for his return, he realizes he has made a huge mistake. He admits that he is a coward and cannot face her, leaving Suzuki, Sharpless and Kate to break the news to Butterfly. Agreeing to give up her child if Pinkerton comes himself to see her, she then prays to statues of her ancestral gods, says goodbye to her son, and blindfolds him. She places a small American flag into his hands and goes behind a screen, cutting her throat with her father's hara-kiri knife. Pinkerton rushes in, but he is too late, and Butterfly dies.


Summary of M. Butterfly


The play was inspired by Giacomo Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly. The first act introduces the main character, Rene Gallimard, who is a civil servant attached to the French embassy in China. He falls in love with a beautiful Chinese opera diva, Song Liling, who is actually a man masquerading as a woman. In traditional Beijing opera, females were banned from the stage; all female roles (dan) were played by males. The first act ends with Gallimard returning to France in shame and living alone after his wife, Helga, finds out about his affair with Song and leaves him. 


Act two begins with Song coming to France and resuming the affair with Gallimard. They stay together for 20 years until the truth is revealed, and Gallimard is convicted of treason and imprisoned. Unable to face the fact that his "perfect woman" is actually a man, that has been posing as a woman for 20 years to be able to spy, he retreats deep within himself and his memories. The action of the play is depicted as his disordered, distorted recollection of the events surrounding their affair.

The third act portrays Gallimard committing seppuku (also known as harakiri, ritual Japanese suicide through self-disembowelment) while Song watches and smokes a cigarette.


Merging Traditions


"M. Butterfly" merges traditions from Western opera (specifically the classical Italian opera Madame Butterfly by Puccini) and Chinese opera. Here's a look at these two traditions.


Chinese Opera





These are an introduction to Chinese opera. 


Madame Butterfly "Love Duet" 



A Story of Revision: Who is M?


Discussion Questions:

  • What is the significance of the M in Hwang's title?
  • How does Hwang make a commentary on gender roles?
  • How does Hwang make a commentary on racism or orientalism?



Group Work: Exam Questions


Break into groups and come up with THREE exam questions for M. Butterfly. The exam questions should refer to specific places in the text which illuminate the overarching idea/theme of race, sex and citizenship in the drama. 


Who is On Top?


Last week we decided that M. Butterfly is essentially about power, not sex. In this play, individuals and governments struggle to get on-top (in myriad different ways). Break into groups again and answer the question:  So who do you think is on top and why? Who is victimized? How are expectations (about citizenship and gender identity) shaping the characters? Support your claim with THREE references from the text. 



Genre: Bending Boundaries


Prose fiction was a medium traditionally adopted by groups that lacked a voice in the English-speaking world. Some critics claim it is because prose is not a compact genre and thus easier to write without training (or time). Others have demonstrated that prose had a broad, popular following, making it an ideal vehicle for anyone who wanted to reach a wide-spread popular audience. 


By contrast, drama has traditionally been considered an elite artistic medium. Productions require financial backing and the support of a wide variety of trained individuals. How does Hwang's choice of medium make a statement about the resources available to him as an artist?  


This course has primarily looked at prose fiction. How does this drama compare? Do you think it's an effective medium for addressing the issues that the author wants to discuss? 


Who Gets to be Gay, Who Gets to be Asian?

"Who Gets to Be Gay, Who Gets to Be Asian".pdf


"As this book demonstrates, contemporary media products, both mainstream and gay-targeted, continue to present Asian men, both gay and straight and in both America and Asia, as having failed to be men in some pivotal way. Not only do they present Asian men as being less masculine, less competent, and less desirable than white men, Asian men are often used specifically for the purpose of helping white men, both gay and straight, make masculine claims."


How does Hwang address one of the central points in this article? Use three examples from the text to support your answer. 



Possible exam question: 

"Men always believe what they want to hear. So a girl can tell them the most obnoxious lies and guys would believe them." - Scene 1 Act 3

Give an example of a time when Song told Gallimard what he wanted to hear in order to manipulate him (make the fantasy of the perfect Asian woman real). 

  • Galiimard was thinking of having a baby with his wife and so Song told him she was pregnant in order to keep him close to her instead of becoming closer with his wife.  
  •  When Gallimard wants to see Song completely naked she says, "...it all frightens me. I am a modest Chinese girl" and also "I am your treasure. Though inexperienced." 
  • When Song calls Gallimard to hook him after her government tells her to get information she makes herself sound submissive by saying, "I waited until I saw the sun. That was as much discipline as I could manage for one night. Do you forgive me."  
  • When Gallimard wants Song to marry him he/she can not so she tells him she "is not worthy."  


Comments (6)

Kelly Dietz said

at 3:07 pm on Mar 29, 2018

Exam Questions:

1) How do you think that the idea of a perfect woman plays a part of this book?

2) How does Gallimards relationship with biological woman tell us about what the ideal woman is?

Kelly Dietz said

at 3:34 pm on Mar 29, 2018

3) Who is the victim in this book? Why?

4) Who do you think ends up on top? Why?

Noel Saunders said

at 3:32 pm on Apr 2, 2019

How is Gallimard a victim of Song and the European government? How is Song a victim of Gallimard and the Chinese government system?

Describe some of the Western viewpoints of women as mentioned in M. Butterfly (by Hwang).

Ashley Young said

at 3:34 pm on Apr 2, 2019

Emma, Christalyn, Ashley

1) What is an example of people or situations that you see in today's time that is similar to the characters in the play?

2) How is the racism and stereotypes in M Butterfly still present in the media and literature today?

3) Who would you classify as the victim in the play, and why?

Sarah Westfall said

at 3:37 pm on Apr 2, 2019

Exam Questions:

1. What did Gallimard see in Song that he didn't see in his wife Helga? Give Examples

2. In the end of the play, Gallimard said " Tonight I realize that mt search is over. That iv'e looked all along in the wrong place. And now, to you, I will prove that my love was not in vain by returning to the world of fantasy where I first met her". What do you think that Gallimad is trying to say here?

Noel Saunders said

at 3:39 pm on Apr 2, 2019

Possible A's:
Song manipulates Gallimard then betrays him. Gallimard thinks his supervisor is in a position to justify his "affair." Song has to please Gallimard to complete his mission. The government is requiring certain things from Song.

Western viewpoint: Women have feminine mystique, which Song assumes while being a woman in scenes 8-10.
Women are to keep children out of men's hair (Act 2 Scene 9).
In Act 2 Scene 6, Gallimard thinks wives are not to protest men if they "cheat" on them.

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